When Candidates Won’t Commit

By Rachel Polhemus

My colleagues and I have noticed a troubling trend in executive search during the COVID-19 era: Candidates are having a hard time sticking with the recruiting process and are more likely to suddenly drop out of contention for an open position compared to the pre-COVID search world. It seems much easier for them to say, “Sorry, I’m out.” This includes finalists who are on the cusp of being hired.

I think there are a few reasons for this. One is that, compared to pre-COVID days, more search stages are conducted via Zoom rather than in person. With fewer face-to-face meetings between candidates and hiring managers or search committees, job seekers feel much less personal obligation than in the past. Having sometimes met only virtually, there just isn’t a strong connection between employer and potential employee.

Candidates are also trying to balance the needs of their current organization, including staffing shortages and increasing patient volumes, and feel a commitment to stay. Many candidates want to look but do not want to leave their current employer in a lurch.

Another reason is simply that it’s a candidate’s job market. Many executives I speak with have two or three search opportunities before them. It’s a situation where they can’t please everyone and have to say no more often, to more employers.

The Candidate’s Responsibility

The “Sorry, I’m out” syndrome leaves a lot of people feeling disappointed, especially our clients who really need great talent. While candidates can be forgiven for saying no, I have advice for them to make sure it doesn’t happen too often:

  • Be as transparent as you can with the search consultants and employer. Communicate your current situation to them so that they can adapt the search (possibly timeline or expectations) to meet your needs. If they know you have other opportunities, they won’t be as surprised if you ultimately need to tell them no.
  • Communicate your current work stresses. Many times a candidate will remove themselves from the search opportunity as other demands are placed on them by their current employers. Search consultants can find workarounds and find alternative times to meet that do not impact your day job and its obligations.
  • Only pursue jobs you are passionate about and align with you well. In the digital era, it’s much easier to apply and interview for roles even though you may not be enthusiastic about them. Guard against this and only look for positions that energize you.
What We Consultants Must Do

Search consultants (working with our clients) have a responsibility, too, to anticipate noncommittal candidates. Here’s what we need to do:

  • When possible, get back to more in-person interviews. Consultants must work with our clients to gauge their comfort level with on-site interviews and encourage more face-to-face meetings with top candidates. This will forge better relationships that are likely to end in commitment.
  • Ask candidates probing questions to measure their seriousness towards a job:
    • Why do you want this position? How does it fulfill the next career move for you?
    • What is the draw for you to this location (city or state)? Do you see yourself thriving here?
    • Do you have other searches in the hopper? If so, how many and where are you in the process? What timeline are you under?

These kinds of questions asked early and throughout the process will get at a candidate’s true intentions about a potential role.

As COVID-19 subsides, and the job market cools off, candidates lacking commitment will be less of an issue. Until then, it’s a challenge that executive recruiters like myself must deal with head on, so our clients have fewer surprises and meet more candidates who are willing to commit.

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